Band in My Head

How Mojo, Bitches Brew, and Butch Morris inspired a funktional African American family unit

In an ideal world it would work like this: Hiphop would be our blues medium and jazz our abstract-truth medium, the one charged with breaking the silence about the kulchur of the Black poor, our ethnic accent in its most pristine folkloric form, the other charged with speaking the unspeakable, how the human spirit needs more than the spoils of global capitalism. Point blank, hiphop contains all the Black alienation rage and desperate desire for rhythmic pleasure we used to could (sic) hear in jazz, because hiphop is a vessel for all that sound and fury and signifying Cornel West says one cannot not know about being Black in America. The woundedness and the creativity. The blues by any other name. Too accessible and exploitable in hiphop, all too absent in African American improv today.

It's all about trauma man. I can't put it any simpler than that. Post slavery post civil rights post P Diddy Halle and Denzel, many Blackfolk wealthy and poor in this country remain among the walking wounded, viral carriers of a historic truth that all the ducats in the world cannot reconcile. The current statistics on Blackmale suicide, three times that of their white brothers, should tell us something. African American music, jazz and popular, should tell us more. And they do: Hiphop in its unpacifiable cry for even more attention and even greater commodity-fetish status, jazz in its quest for structural integrity and museum-piece status. We love Mary J. Blige because all the Aretha in her cracks and dies before it can rise up out of her throat, not in spite of that fact, because what does eventually break out on her tongue is a joyous noise, the soul of the projects. We love Wynton because all the Miles in him, all the NBA in him, comes not from his horn but from his devotional acquisition of power, wealth, status, and fame in the name of jazz. He's in fact gangsta with it. Therein the conundrum: How can the art of Wynton Marsalis sound as gangsta NBA as the persona and entrepreneurship of Wynton Marsalis? I say by throwing some craps with Butch Morris.

I've lived three places in my life and all were strongholds of the Black self-contained band phenomenon. I was born in Dayton, Ohio, funk capital of the Midwest, home of the Ohio Players, Zapp, Slave. When I was 11 the family moved to the land of the go-go, D.C. Chocolate City. At 23 I arrived in Gotham; next thing I know I'm knee deep in the creation of the Black Rock Coalition. I've never really wanted to be a musician, I just always wanted to be in a band. Because Black bands are like model negro communities, funktional African American family units. Less exercises in democracy than mirrors of "love and dictatorship," as Rammellzee has described our government system. Conduction by any other name. Burnt Sugar, baby.

Burnt Sugar: Cats like us
photo: Shiho Fukada
Burnt Sugar: Cats like us

Details

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    Conduction is a set of baton and hand gestures, 26 and counting, that Butch has developed. They offer the conductioneer the flexibility of a composer on the bandstand, to make orchestral things happen in the moment. You want to turn that bass riff into a horn section? You want the harp to emulate the drums? You want half the band to play the exact same collective improvisation they were playing 15 minutes ago? You want the cellos to stomp over it like Stravinsky? You want the beat to flip from punk to funk to crunk to a one-drop in the same time it takes to read this? And those are just stunts. The best part is how you can coax a unison sound out of any ensemble no matter the instrumentation or how long the musicians have played together. Butch has done conductions with David Murray's big band and bands of Turkish and Japanese musicians playing everything from "folk" instruments to laptops. He's done them with poets and could probably do them with painters and dancers. The system is that flexible and that precise.

    I'm pretty loose in my definitions of what's jazz and what ain't, but I still believe it should at some point privilege the spontaneous creation and interpretation of rhythm, the classic repertoire, and harmolodic noise. The art of the improviser. By the same token the jazz I love the most—that of those lovely dictators Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Betty Carter, Wayne Shorter, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, McCoy Tyner, Billie Holiday, Bill Dixon—also privileges scores, what Bobby McFerrin calls "paper music." That tension we love: between found rhythm and fixed melody, jump and jive, slick and wicked, raw and cooked, langue and parole. The great riddle of subatomic physics is how the probability of an event can also be a particle. How a question, restless, inconsolable, adrift, can also function like an answer, fixed, final, finite, finished. This paradox plays itself out as the spirit of jazz versus the science of jazz. The spirit of jazz can up and possess anything. A flapper, a writer, a great depression, a turntable, a binary code. Whereas the science of jazz is what can be analyzed and repeated. What used to be fun about jazz was the way it mocked the instability of those categories. There used to be folly dividing the needs of the flesh and the pleasures of the mind, the dancer and the dance. Once jazz was the great organizing paradigm of African American thought, being, and desire because it was where the culture found its most complex representation in the world. Even our politics aspired to the condition of the music: the world after liberation, when Black and human will mean the same thing and the whole world will move accordingly.

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